Recently, I wrote about how the 12 Step fellowships can help Christians understand what it is to be a “fellowship of the broken.” So let’s now examine more closely what we can learn from our 12 Step friends about the nature of the Christian Church.
There are many things we could look at—the nontraditional structure of AA, for example; the intentional corporate poverty; the ethic of servanthood leadership; the beautiful practice of individual confession and absolution contained in the 4th Step’s “Inventory” and 5th Step’s “Disclosure”; or the notion of an evangelistic outreach based on “attraction rather than promotion.” I could write a whole blog on any of these topics.
But I want to look at one main lesson that we as the Christian Church can learn from the 12 Steppers—the spiritual power that comes from such a fellowship of brokenness.
Now, the reason that people go to a 12 Step Program, as we have seen, is because they realize that their lives are in trouble. But the reason that people stay there is because what they find there is attractive to them. And what they find is an underground fellowship of honesty, love and joy. Let me unpack that.
First, I called it an underground fellowship. You see, there has long been– and still is– a social stigma associated with alcoholism. The stigma is even worse for what I call the “unmentionable addictions”– drug addiction, compulsive gambling or overeating, sexual addiction in all its forms. Now I am not here to argue how these problems are or are not like chemical dependency, why they are called addictions, and related questions. If you don’t know, go talk to someone suffering in one of these areas and you will understand.
But those of us in these 12 Step fellowships have in our DNA a deep understanding that we are different from the rest of society– sometimes pitied, sometimes embraced, always misunderstood. We are quite aware that ours is the last house on the block, and that not everyone is glad we are in the neighborhood. This produces something like an underground fellowship, a counter-cultural bond.
We stick together, of course, because we know that only here can we recover from addiction, but also because we know that, here, we are accepted as we are—even with our brokenness and our past chaos, our repugnant failures and unforgivable crimes. We are still welcome. And it creates a unique and deep bond that is highly attractive. After all, if you are a jack-in-the-box that has never worked properly, what a relief it is to stumble upon the Island of Misfit Toys.
But the fellowship is also attractive because, here, Misfit Toys don’t have to hide their brokenness—in fact, it is useless to try. Everyone else, too, are Misfits and so cannot be fooled. And so there is in the 12 Step fellowships an incredible vulnerability and honesty. A man can walk into an AA meeting and talk about his struggles with sexual promiscuity, or how he still battles deep anger and violence, and know that he will still be accepted. A woman can admit that she stole money from her family for her gambling habit and she will not be kicked out of GA. (Now, by the way, these admissions will also be met with gentle but unyielding directions about how to make amends for these defects of character. But that’s beside my point and a topic for another day.) My point is that the unconditional acceptance and love is the essence of the fellowship, and it is very attractive to people who have always known they were fundamentally broken.
Second, these are fellowships of joy.
When I was first in recovery and trying out new meetings, I realized one day how I was finding where the meetings were: I would drive to the address and then listen for the laughter. Always laughter. In fact, visitors to AA are often surprised, even shocked, at how much laughter there is. This is a comedy of solidarity—to hear the ridiculous things we did to remain in denial or to justify ourselves in addiction is, well, funny. As we say, we put the fun in dysfunctional.
But it is also the joyous democracy and comaraderie of the saved, a laughter at the miracle that we are still alive when for all practical purposes we had been given up for dead.
And third, a fellowship of love—a love that comes from mutual honesty, vulnerability and the noble struggle to change that is nothing less than holy. Mark M, a friend in the Program, says that the greatest gift we can give another person is the willingness to change in his or her presence. For that is love in action, going beyond words, doing the “footwork” of love. It is amazingly rare in our culture.
I owe my life to about ten men in recovery, who over the years first walked with me as the insanity of my life in addiction wore off, and still walk with me today. I have in my speed dial right now probably 20 names of men who I could call anytime day or night and if I said, “I need your help,” any one of them would drop what he was doing to come help me—across town or across the globe. I do not exaggerate. And they would do it with gratitude and joy, because they know that in helping me they are helping to keep themselves sober. Because that is what we do; it is our language and our currency. It’s how we got sober and how we got saved.
Stepping back, then, it is easy to go from all this—a underground fellowship of honesty, love and joy–right to the pages of the Book of Acts, where St Luke describes the fledgling Christian Church in the very first years…
–followers of Jesus holding joyous meetings behind locked doors and dodging Roman authorities who condemn them as blasphemers because when others say “Caesar is Lord”—the common imperial greeting—the Christians, counter-culturalists all, retort, “no, Jesus is Lord”;
–the relative handful of Christians selling all they have to take care of one another and the poor, confessing their sins to one another, and walking free in the grace of Christ;
–Peter and Paul saying to the beggar: “gold and silver have I none, but what I have I give you—in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, loose that which binds you, rise and walk!”
–the Apostle Paul—the chief among sinners, he says, and not worthy to be called an apostle—refusing to carry the shame of his days as an abusive and murderous religious despot, but instead proclaiming that, in Christ, he is a free man who counts all loss as gain so long as he can serve Christ and his brothers and sisters.
Good people of God, if God has raised up latter day fellowships to instruct and remind Christians what is our true condition and what is the nature of the Church, then the most remarkable one started 75 years ago with a washed out stockbroker who was at the end of the line and unconditionally threw himself on the mercy of God as he understood God, and was saved.
We Christians should be so blessed to admit our own brokenness so fully and to know our common mission so clearly as do our friends the addicts.